Going out for dinner at 4:30 p.m. isn't just for seniors anymore.
Young couples across the land are bucking the trend of take-out pizza night with the family and braving the intense public scrutiny associated with car seats and high chairs at sit down dining.
Overdramatic? Yes. All in my head? Also yes.
Plus, anyone who is out to dinner when most people are still commuting home from work should expect some degree of cooing babies or the feeble attempts at an "indoor voice" from toddlers. Many chain restaurants actually cater to this crowd with crayons, fun packets, and cartoon laden kid's cups, but finding upscale dining with a kid friendly environment is a tad trickier.
Thankfully in Chelmsford we have at least two.
Vincenzo's of Chelmsford - There are two locations, thus the designation. In fact, as of May 17th Vincenzo's is under new ownership and will be changing their name in the near future. For those who have been there before, fear not, nearly everything is staying the same except for the ownership. Long time General Manager Cathy Ribeck has bought the restaurant from previous owner Vincent Cicerchia and has retained the head chef and nearly all, if not all, of the existing staff.
In case that wasn't clear enough - except for a forthcoming new name, nothing will change about your dining experience at Vincenzo's.
For those who have yet to experience this restaurant, I'm not sure what you are waiting for. While slightly off the beaten path with a location at 170 Concord Road, the extra 3 minute trip out of the center to sleepy South Chelmsford is well worth it. Risotto of the day, nightly specials that are out of this world, and even main dishes that feature local produce from Jones Farm are just a few of the highlights you will find here.
As best as I can put it, very few places, if any, leave me saying, "Are you kidding me?" after every meal.
I don't even have a favorite dish as I can't bring myself to try something twice for fear of missing out on experiencing something new and exciting. The prices are on par with what you would expect of typical Italian restaurant, and given the quality, they are flat out bargains.
Above all that, my favorite part is that I can bring the kids and not feel even a fraction of guilt for doing so. Pretty much everyone has a kid's menu, Vincenzo's being no exception, but it's the staff that brings it home for me. They talk to our kids, remember their names from previous visits, and even offer up information about their own kids and lives in a friendly and engaging manner.
I can't say that I've ever felt like Norm from Cheers at a local establishment, let alone one with ridiculously good food, but Vincenzo's is truly a place that feels like home to me and my family.
Cafe Madrid - Located at 116 Chelmsford Street, and the former location of Skip's Restaurant, Cafe Madrid features Spanish and American cuisine, with the added bonus of an out-of-this-world breakfast menu.
I've done breakfast with the family a hundred times, but rarely do I get the chance to experience Portuguese Style French Toast.
This place gets busy, and with good reason, as the food is not only top notch, it is also unique. To manage the influx of hungry patrons from near and far, Cafe Madrid features the Havana Room to accommodate walk-in dinner seating during the busy weekend evenings. This room also doubles as a function or meeting room with seating for 85 people.
There is no shortage of ambiance here either. Featuring live entertainment every weekend, colorful decor, and soft lighting, you truly feel like you are stepping into another country when walking through their doors.
Beyond all that, the food is the real main attraction at Cafe Madrid. A complete Tapas menu, salads like you have never experienced before, and main courses that will make your mouth water every time. At this restaurant, I do actually have a favorite. While I have the desire to try everything and anything on their menu, and sometimes fear repeating a dish, I have simply never experienced anything like their Havana Paella.
Chicken, pork, and chorizo with Spanish rice, vegetables, and seasoned with what I can only guess is saffron, this dish is one of a kind. It was one of those dishes that the first time I had it I was in disbelief. Every bite I took I kept expecting it to not taste as ridiculously good as the previous bite because maybe I was dreaming or hallucinating and bound to snap out of it eventually, but alas, the last bite was as good as the first.
In fact, if you are able to finish this huge dish I suggest entering yourself into some sort of eating contest. Bring it home, have some for lunch the next day, because true to form, it was just as good, if not better, the second time around.
Also true to from, is the staff and environment for children. If you’re going out to eat at a reasonable hour, you will find plenty of other families in attendance, as well as a friendly and engaging staff to make your experience a favorable one. We've taken the family to Cafe Madrid numerous of times, and we don't plan on stopping anytime soon.
It's easy to find quality food and it's easy to find family friendly restaurants. Finding them both in the same location is a rare thing, and Chelmsford is fortunate enough to feature two of the best I have ever experienced.
'Brad the Dad' is a parent columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter @readbradthedad.